Japanese noise legends and perennial Headstand favourites Melt-Banana return to Cambridge for only the second time on their latest European tour. Yako and Agata spoke to Headstand ahead of their gig on May 31st.
On April 1st 1993 in Tokyo vocalist Yako and guitarist Agata christened their band Melt-Banana. Combining an early song title with the Velvet Underground’s iconic album cover, the name is as random and distinctive as the band’s hard to define sound characterised by Yako’s shrill rapid-fire vocals and Agata’s FX laden guitar played loud and at breakneck speeds.
Yako was the founder and driving force of the group in the early days. Agata recalls: “Yako wrote basic parts. She explained to the other members like "play drums like dododo kakaka dododo kakakaka, then stop, then daaaaa," or "play guitar kyuuuun this part then ga ga ga with bass guitar together," something like that. After the first album, I also started writing songs.”
“I am not good at playing instruments, so I could only explain orally.” Yako admits. She takes a similar haphazard approach to song writing. “I read the dictionary. I can find many interesting words in it. If a word has a nice pronunciation with interesting meanings, it will be a good start to write something. I don't think my lyrics have a strong message compared with other bands, and I don't sing about love and peace. I just write down what I see and feel in life.” The result is songs with titles like Candy Gun, Lie Lied Lies and Lefty Dog (Run Caper Run).
Agata started playing piano before moving to guitar, an instrument he could make his own. “I'm not so much interested in doing things that many people are already trying and anyway, I didn't think I could be better than those people. I was more into feedback noise or effect sounds which made me feel excited. But I think most other guitarists think I'm just a kind of button pusher.”
The two musicians’ esoteric tastes have proved a perfect match and have always been at the heart of Melt-Banana’s sound. Of their enduring collaboration Yako simply says, “We have just kept doing what we want to do.” Agata’s not sure, “Maybe Yako has tolerance for me,” he suggests.
The band reached an audience beyond their native Japan when legendary experimental musician K K Null agreed to release their first record and hooked them up with producer Steve Albini in Chicago. They attracted the attention of John Peel in the UK and have regularly toured The US and Europe since the mid-90s. Agata vividly remembers a live session for the John Peel show: “During the programme, he introduced us and Yako was supposed to say something like hello before the band start playing. But she didn't say anything and made a long silence on air and the BBC people looked upset till Yako finally said something.”
Silence is not often associated with Melt-Banana and they have worked with other noise pioneers including Mike Patton, John Zorn and Merzbow. They also attracted the attention of Lou Reed who returned to his love of experimental noise and drone music towards the end of his career.
The group almost disbanded in 2012 before being invited by Shellac to play ATP as a two piece.
“Honestly I was not sure if we could make this work,” Agata says “but after ATP show, I felt we could do something and then the recording for the new album went very smooth after that show.”
Fetch, which came out late last year, was the first album recorded by the duo and was written in the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake, an event that both feel changed them. “It was difficult to concentrate on writing music, during that period I was not sure why I write music,” Agata says. Yako agrees: “I just feel something has been changed in my mind. It is difficult to explain in words.”
The album has a broader range of sounds and emotions and is a highly refined version of the raw noise from their early days. Field recordings of frogs, and waves crashing contrast the trademark shrill vocals and jack hammer riffs sharply rendered on multilayered recordings. It makes performing live a challenge but the duo are settled with the new arrangement: “we have been like a duo for a long time writing music and managing the band,” says Agata, “so it is quite natural for us to be performing and playing shows as a duo.”
They have a well-earned reputation for thrilling and exhilarating live shows and with 13 UK dates on their current European tour they are certainly in demand. Catch them at The Portland on May 31st.
Interview with Yako for Headstand from 2008:
Interview with Yako for Headstand from 2008: